Twelve years ago, Graham Cooke completed a $4-million renovation of the venerable Highlands Links Golf Club in remote Ingonish, NS. The course, which was always splendid, was held up as the best in Canada, and Cooke used the success to extensively market himself. Unfortunately what he did (along with assistant designer Steve Miller) was a poor imitation of designer Stanley Thompson’s work — oval bunkers replacing existing ones, new tees being added in odd spots (like those behind the third green for the fourth hole Writer’s note — thanks for the correction, Joe), litte attention to drainage and generally ignoring the myriad of historical documentation that existed in pictures and by longtime club members like Joe Robinson. Regardless, someone had the audacity to add Cooke’s name as a designer of the club alongside Thompson in Golf magazine’s Top 100 in the world in 2005 (that said, Cooke’s addition of a new tee on the all-world par-5 sixth is smart).
Despite this, the club had fallen in disarray. Tee boxes only constructed 12 years ago, look like they haven’t been altered since the 1950s. One fellow architecture afficianado said they resembled “Donald Ross greens.” Ouch. Tree clearing was not accomplished properly, limiting light and air flow. Thompson’s wonderful and often elaborate bunkers were turned into simple shapes, taking much of the art out of the course. Course maintenance, always complicated by Highlands being part of the Parks Canada system and its linked unions, was uneven and often disappointing.
“This is among the Top 100 courses in the world?” regular vistors could be overheard as exclaiming when they hit the bald ninth green, the end of a brilliantly designed hole.
Regardless, the course had bones that were breathtaking. For example, there’s the remarkable second hole, a tremendous test of golf despite not a single bunker; the back-to-back brilliance of the sixth and seventh — par-5 holes that rival anything in the world; the incredible short 4s of hole four and eight; and the amazing 15th, with its view of the ocean comparable to few holes in the world.
As regular readers know, I’ve been interested in Stanley Thompson and his courses for many years. He’s unrivaled in Canada, even with the emergence of Doug Carrick, Rod Whitman and Tom McBroom. And when Ken Donovan, a Cape Breton scholar who has a particular interest in Highlands Links and Thompson, asked if I’d come to a symposium on the designer and present a talk, I was quite keen. What would be the worst to happen? At least I’d get to play Highlands again.
On Tuesday I flew into Nova Scotia with golf designers and fellow presenters Jeff Mingay (who works with Rod Whitman) and Ian Andrew. There we met Lorne Rubenstein, who was presenting the keynote recap, and Bill Newton, executive director of the Stanley Thompson Society. The talk was scheduled on Wednesday, but that gave us the great option of hitting Highlands for a round as soon as we arrived — which is exactly what we did.
We found Highlands in difficult condition after a long, wet summer. The occasional green was threadbare, lacking grass. Wet patches were everywhere. Trees had overrun many areas of the course, sucking the light needed for thick, firm turf. The course was still great — but it felt tired and worn. Any good done by the renovation had long since disappeared. I was concerned, but was also aware that finally there was once more talk of a proper restoration — one that paid careful attention to the evidence.
Turns out that Andrew had been handed the reins to start the planning for a history-based restoration of what may be Thompson’s masterpiece. Andrew has done plenty of impressive work at places like St. George’s, Kawartha, St. Thomas, and more recently in the U.S. after leaving Doug Carrick’s office a few years ago. No guarantee that the restoration will go forward, but it appears more likely than I anticipated, with Andrew, Clifford, the course’s super, and long-time pro Joe Robinson wandering the course yesterday marking trees to be cut. It is a huge first step and I’m hopeful it’ll lead to the decision to fund a real restoration.
As Lorne Rubenstein said to me while we were at a dinner, “It really is like Dornoch.” Rubenstein was referring to all of the Ingonish area, but he was also including the course. A restoration could move Highlands — currently ranked 79th of the more than 30,000 in the world by Golf magazine — to an even more illustrious place. It is Canada’s prize, our greatest accomplishment in golf design, and should be celebrated. A restoration would take government funds — but I’m sure Ottawa pisses away more than the than the needed funds without a second thought.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the course, its place in Canada, its importance Cape Breton and Ingonish, and just how remarkable it is. I’ll write about it more in coming days, including my comments on the symposium and where Highlands could go if Andrew is allowed to go forward with an appropriate plan.
Update: I’ll write more tomorrow about this — and answer some of the comments. Lorne Rubenstein, who gave a moving keynote and talked about his love for Thompson’s Uplands, has an article in yesterday’s Globe on Highlands. Lorne concludes: “This bewitching historical landscape and landmark must be saved. If it’s not, Parks Canada would sabotage a part of Cape Breton’s rich culture. Canadians, and Canada, would be the losers.”